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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Crime/Public Safety

As city leaders eye police reform, state legislators could also take action

Washington state lawmakers set big police reform agenda for upcoming session.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington state lawmakers set big police reform agenda for upcoming session. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

In their quest for police reform, elected officials in the city of Spokane may lean on their counterparts in the state Legislature for help.

But what action the legislature will take – and when it will next convene – remains up in the air.

Leaders in the Senate are mulling over many of the same reform ideas as members of the Spokane City Council, after Council President Breean Beggs introduced a broad proposal last week. The state Legislature could act during a special session later this year, but it remains uncertain if and when that will happen.

The policy discussions are happening as protesters take to the streets in Spokane and across the nation to protest police brutality and racial injustice following the death of George Floyd.

In Spokane, reform-focused city leaders could look to the state to limit the authority of police unions to negotiate their own oversight during contract negotiations.

The Spokane City Charter grants the civilian in charge of police oversight with power to independently investigate complaints against officers and publicly report his findings.

The city’s contract with its police union, however, does not.

The discrepancy has long been the subject of ire from advocates for police reform in Spokane, where the death of Otto Zehm in 2006 sparked a sustained push for civilian oversight of the Police Department. Oversight is at the center of debate over a proposed contract with the Spokane Police Guild that was rejected by the City Council on Monday.

“Literally, for 12 years, in Spokane we have been having the same conversation about this,” Beggs said.

Beggs is leaning on Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and his colleagues to enact a state law that would prohibit matters of civilian oversight from being collectively bargained in police union contracts.

That’s one of myriad of proposals under consideration by Democrats in the Senate, which could include a ban on chokeholds, forcing officers to warn a suspect before shooting a firearm, and prohibiting shooting at moving cars.

The Senate could take up police reforms in a special session, which Gov. Jay Inslee could call in the coming months to address the massive state budget deficit caused by the coronavirus.

Billig said senators are in a “listening period” and engaging with stakeholders on reform legislation, after which they will finalize a suite of bills.

“Independent oversight is a common theme, that’s not just a Spokane thing, that’s something we’ve heard from other communities around the state,” Billig said.

If there is a special session, Billig said the Senate likely will take up bills that could pass quickly.

“The groundwork is being done right now so that we have legislation ready to go. If there is a special session or when there is a special session, I do think there is some low-hanging fruit that we could get done,” said state Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond.

Beggs introduced a long slate of proposed city reforms in a nonbinding resolution last week, some of which intersect with issues also under review by state legislators.

Spokane’s city charter explicitly grants the police ombudsman the authority to independently investigate complaints against police. And while Spokane Police Ombudsman Bart Logue cannot discipline an officer, he is authorized under city charter to opine on the case in a publicly available closing report.

But, as Beggs explains, the ombudsman has never exercised that authority, because the language of the Spokane Police Guild’s contract deviates from that of the city charter.

There are a set of questions surrounding how cities collectively bargain with police unions, according to Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who is one of the senators spearheading the Senate’s look at reforms.

The subject is thorny both politically and legally, Pedersen said. The state has the authority to determine what’s subject to bargaining, “but you’ve got a bunch of other labor organizations that are watching anxiously as you start making changes.”

But Pedersen pointed to the recent expulsion of the Seattle Police Officers Guild from the King County Labor Council, an umbrella of more than 150 labor unions, amid recent protests.

“That signals a willingness within the rest of organized labor, or a decent chunk of organized labor, to try to figure out how to draw some lines that might allow more flexibility with the police,” Pedersen said.

Ultimately, Billig said, the protests have worked.

“It has become a higher urgency,” he said of the reform effort. “At the same time, we want to be deliberate and make sure we’re taking our time to get the policy right.”

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